It’s Good Lies, Bad Lies and Outsourcing Spies in ‘The Courier’

A still from 'The Courier'. Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch) is standing on a street with another gentleman. they are shot in close-up it looks like they are trying to exchange information without gaining attention. It is 1960s set.

“It is only deception” and yet in the face of suspicion, even spies may lack the proper instruments needed to maintain the utmost secrecy. What occurs in the aftermath is anyone’s guess.

The year is 1960, and tensions are high between global superpowers the United States and the Soviet Union; each country now possesses enough firepower to wipe out millions if they should choose and such an outcome feels inevitable. Emily Donovan (Rachel Brosnahan) is a CIA operative working in conjunction with the British government to keep political momentum and dominance alive in the west. Unfortunately, CIA presence is weak in Russia and the race to prevent a looming war is growing dire. More bodies are needed on the ground with one person in particular to make contact with their source inside Moscow, Colonel Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze). Codenamed Ironbark, Oleg is an ex-artillery officer turned scientific researcher who has been accumulating top secret information for them. Emily suggests recruiting someone outside the government to keep KBG suspicion low. 

Enter Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch), a prolific salesman in London with experience navigating the markets of Eastern Europe. For Greville, this whole debacle is peculiar at most, right out of a novel. He is assured there will be no danger. In comparison, for Oleg, danger is imminent every day and the penalty for being caught spying, for being a traitor, is execution. Upon his arrival in Moscow, Greville sets up a meeting with the board members responsible for Soviet innovation where he meets Oleg. From then on, an unusual partnership and mutual friendship is born. Oleg provides Greville with packages of confidential intelligence for Emily and the British government and in turn, Greville introduces Oleg to those same contacts, who promise they will help him and his family defect when the time comes. It is only when the mission has been ongoing for a number of months that Greville finally learns the whole truth about why he’s been recruited: to help stop a nuclear confrontation. The stakes climb higher for both men with each subsequent visit, threatening to bury them, their loved ones and their country in rubble. Eyes are everywhere, paranoia is infectious, and the clock is ticking. War is on the horizon. 


The Courier is a historical drama based upon true events and is director Dominic Cooke’s fifth feature-length film. This piece is a slow burn espionage tale that opts for discussing the act of espionage during the first half of the film and then makes up for it in the latter half with a new degree of action. The quirky score threaded throughout a handful of scenes is at odds with the inherent seriousness of the subject matter, producing a contradiction to what ought to be a tense atmosphere. The decision to weave rather eccentric melodies with Tchaikovsky’s famous Swan Lake theme and melancholic tones once the film’s conclusion approaches, crafts an auditory phenomenon of organised chaos, sometimes hopeful, sometimes grave – which is precisely the line Cold War stories teeter on. 

Cumberbatch is no stranger to war dramas, already having The Imitation Game, 1917, War Horse and Atonement under his belt. His latest character however, is a less a freedom fighter, less an unlikely hero and more of a knowledgeable man of business who is a slightly inept though helpful amateur spy, whose bravery emerges at the end of his journey. With that said, Cumberbatch still delivers a solid performance. Ninidze does as well, drawing the audience in with his exhibition of gentleness in a time when human relations were anything but gentle. Brosnahan is a standout too, embodying a ladylike intelligence officer who is a kind person and good at her job.

Cumberbatch and Ninidze make a good team, and it is refreshing to see two men who should be at odds due to their country of origin working together, relying on the statecraft of deception and subtleness as opposed to running around shooting guns and punching faces. “Maybe we’re only two people, but that is how things change”‘; their atypical bond adds an element of humanity, reminding us that we are not so different regardless of what tongues we speak or what we’ve been conditioned to believe. 

The Courier is a film that feels like it is stuffed full of events and conversations yet somehow it still drags in the middle. Forty-five minutes to go, and things pick up with the introduction of one of the most infamous events of the Cold War: the Cuban Missile Crisis. Overall, the best aspect of Cooke’s piece is the fact that it actually happened, and nothing is more exciting – or scarier – than that. 

The Courier is available in select cinemas from March 19th

by Kacy Hogg

Kacy is an English Lit student living in the Great White North (no not Winterfell unfortunately), Canada. Her favourite films include the Harry Potter series, CinderellaCaptain America: The Winter SoldierThe Hangover, and Lady Bird. She’s also an avid binge-watcher of Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead. You can follow her on Twitter here: @KacHogg95

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